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Modes of Subsistence-Hunter Gatherers

Updated on August 3, 2016
Bushmen, !Kung tribe
Bushmen, !Kung tribe

To have little does not mean to be poor, it is the choice of the individual regarding the items that they acquire. Items are needed for leisure purposes, to keep us safe and most importantly for survival. Malinowski describes hunter-gatherers as: ‘People who obtain their food from wild products by hunting wild animals, by fishing and gathering wild roots, fruits and the honey of wild bees’. These peoples way of life is one whereby all they require is in the environment surrounding them. These items extend to food stuffs, medicines as well as raw and organic materials (e.g. wood is used in order to build shelters and bone is often used to make the tools they require for their hunting pursuits).


There are very few hunter-gathering communities left in the world. Hunter-gatherers are nomadic, meaning that they migrate to different regions at different times during the year. They live in small population densities (Pygmies dwell in populations of 30 persons or less), the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is only able to provide for a small number of people. Their movement is a key reason as to why they are unable to accumulate a wide range of belongings. These would be a hindrance as they would need to be carried when these people travelled to new areas. This factor shall be expanded upon in the course of this piece, it is key as it is a reason why these peoples have little. Western biases placed on the idea of poor may lead one to think that hunter-gatherers are poor. In the Western world wealth is demonstrated by what people possess, the quality, cost and numbers of these items. In Stone Age Economics, Marshall Sahlins proposes that hunter-gatherer societies are affluent. The works of Sahlins in this book demonstrates the access that hunter-gatherers have, to what is needed for their survival. This access according to Sahlins means that they cannot be poor. This point will also be discussed farther.

The Kalahari Desert. where the !Kung San Tribe dwell (a tough and uncompromising environment)
The Kalahari Desert. where the !Kung San Tribe dwell (a tough and uncompromising environment)

The way in which wealth is perceived varies from person to person and from culture to cukture. Western individuals, such as myself tend to define wealth by the items people possess and the quality of these items. It is material goods that reflect how wealthy or else poor a person is. A family whom has a modern sports car such as a Porsche and a home cinema is obviously more wealthy than a family who drives an older second hand car. It is important to note that exceptions do exist, some wealthy individuals choose not to buy many quality goods, perhaps because they like simple things. Wealth, in hunter-gatherer societies is not displayed in the same way. They do not accumulate a wide range of material goods, due to the nomadic lifestyle they adopt. The reasons for these movements include: the seasonal migration of game, they may have exhausted the resources in a specific area, due to threats from a camp nearby or else in the search for water. Possesions must therefore be at a minimum as all items have to be carried. The female !Kung San of the Kalahari are responsible for carrying their families possessions. These are carried in a bag like structure called a caross, which is made out of animal skins, carosses are also used as an infant sling. Many items would weigh them down as they journeyed from place to place. This is why it is unsuitable for them to accumulate a wide range of goods. Western Ideals and biases in terms of how wealth is perceived may lead one to see hunter-gatherers as being poor. This is due to them possessing very little.

Ancient depiction evidencing the hunt  which is necessary for hunter-gatherer, societies survival.
Ancient depiction evidencing the hunt which is necessary for hunter-gatherer, societies survival.

The peoples of hunter-gatherer societies are often thought of as being backward. This backwardness can be seen as being poor in another sense. To be 'backward' shows that individuals have not adapted and have a poorly developed culture. In Western countries children attend schools, the hunting gathering communities of which have been read about and discussed do not attend school. Due to their not being involved in schooling of any kind; they are thought of as being uneducated. However, a great deal of knowledge and skill is required in order to survive in what are very often harsh and inhospitable environments. If it was not for this knowledge they would not know which plants were safe to eat, which had healing properties, those that could be used as poison on hunters arrows, where to find food and water. This knowledge has been acquired over centuries and is passed down through the generations. !Kung individuals learn from their parents, usually in their teenage years. Before reaching their teens, children are free to do as they please and often engage in gathering or hunting pursuits of their own (this activity is practiced as they have seen their parents doing so).


The diet of the hunter-gatherer is a great indicator to the level of prosperity. Members of societies that are prosperous should easily be able to meet the average calorific intake this is an intake of 2000 Kcal for the average female and 2500 for the average male. Poorer countries will have difficulty in meeting the recommended intake. With reference to the hunter-gathering scociety of the !Kung it is evident that these peoples enjoy a rich and varied diet. The !Kung are small in stature and are thin, their average calorific intake per day is extremely adequate to support them. The average intake is 2,335 Kcal. The adequacy of their diet means that the !Kung as hunter-gatherers are not poor in terms of the food they consume.

Mbuti Pygmy Tribe, Congo
Mbuti Pygmy Tribe, Congo

Anthropologists whom have conducted research amongst specific huter-gatherer populations have found that many do not rely entirely upon hunting and gathering. Evidence exists revealing relations between neighbouring peoples, those working in agriculture and also evidence of the engagement in waged work has been found. Despite these findings, hunting and gathering is still practiced and is central to these peoples way of life. Through time hunter-gatherers have not remained isolated from Western culture. European explorers are known to have come into contact with these peoples. This therefore means that these peoples have managed to see how a Western individual lives their life and also use products such as tabacco, rice, cotton etc, which would unable to be extracted from their surrounding environment. Europeans visited and colonised the areas in which hunter-gatherers lived due to their being a specific resource present here of which they could manufacture for sale on the World Market, these resources include: sugar cane and rubber. Hunter-gathering peoples worked for the Europeans or whomever else colonised the area. Relevant also is batering, gifts are always given to hunter-gatherer peoples by the anthropologist living alongside and studying them.


A group called the Nayaka who dwell in Southern India, worked within the coffee plantations. They were well suited to the job, their hunter-gatherer lifestyle meant that they had great knowledge of the forest. The work conducted here included clearing the forrest and pathways within the jungle, weeding and also the management of foliage to prevent it covering the cooffee plants. For this work the Nayaka were paid wages. A tea shop developed, this was a point whereby money could be exchanged by the Nayakan workers for a resource they may find useful. Items sold here included many European items, which the Nayaka had never had access to previously. This alternative means whereby food could be accessed, was utilised by the Nayaka at strategic times. The work pattern of the Nayaka is interesting, they chose to work at times when food supply (as hunted or gathered by themselves) was not definite. Therefore, working at a time when food was scarce and more energy would be necessary to be utilised to collect or hunt for it.


A tribe called the Mbuti was known to have traded, this is yet another way that hunter gather populations have secured an alternate way to gain food/materials. The !Kung of the Kalahari live in close proximity to cattle herding communities called Hereroes. These peoples were able to provide the !Kung with milk from cattle. Farther evidence amongst hunter-gatherer societies has also been found. Peoples are evidenced to have grown crops also. These practices are simply extras, hunting and gathering is still the central way of life for these societies. Altogether, this engagement with civilised societies, visitors, employers and Western/developed peoples shows adaptability. As well as an ability to make the most out of situations, to provide the goods that they need and desire. By having more options available, it increases chance of survival in a world that has changed since their ancestors roamed the earth.

Yams growing, a vital foodstuff to the Nayakan people
Yams growing, a vital foodstuff to the Nayakan people

Of the hunting-gathering populations studied it is evident that they lead a hand to mouth existence. Pursuits of hunting and gathering are engaged on a regular basis. These activities take up an estimated 32.5 hours per week. Hunter-gatherers do not have refrigeration or freezing. Foods therefore cannot be stored for extended periods of time. All items are ate not long after they are hunted/gathered. This idea of not keeping items and making them last is evident in the behaviour of the Nayaka in the tea shops. The hunter-gatherer workers did not buy items in bulk. Preferring to return to the shops as soon as something was finished. This point is written into their lifestyle and is the same way that they use the resources that they extract themselves from the environment around them. “They were unaccustomed to saving and storing” (Nurit-Bird, D, 1992). The way in which they coooked purchased rice was the same means that they cooked other foods such as yam. They cooked the rice in very little water, creating a porridge like consistency. Water as a resource is precious and not to be wasted. The behaviour of the Nayaka in terms of the tea shops reflects on how these peoples have little. The inability to save and store is further evidence that items cannot be accumulated by hunter-gatherers.

!Kung San children and evidence of Western influence in their dress.
!Kung San children and evidence of Western influence in their dress.

In conclusion, it is evident that hunter-gatherer communities whether they be The !Kung San, The Nayaka or else Pygmies it is convenient for them to posess very little. The seasonal and movements in general of these people means that all items need to be carried as they move. It is therefore unwise for them to have a vast accumulation of goods. Engagement of waged work, agricultural practices and also in trading shows that these peoples are not entirely on their own. They are able to adapt and make the most of resources, even if it is just to acquire consumer goods (e.g. tabacoo) for personal use or bartering with neighbouring tribes or one another. The practice of such activities is a means that effectively increases their prosperity.


The influence of other communities lets hunter-gatherers see the difficulties in their way of life. These other communities are an asset in terms of the materials provided but may be responsible for the loss of hunter-gathering as a way of life. In !Kung society intermarriage occurs between the !Kung and also the Herero cattle herders and at the time of Shostaks research there was a trend of young !Kung males becoming cattle herders. It must be remembered that these societies are not without their problems. Disease and illness are rife. Real dangers are present, often imposed by the animals and insects that they live in such close proximity to, these are of particular danger to the very old and young children. The climate in which they live in is very often difficult.


The !Kung for example live in the Kalahari dessert, during the day temperatures there are very high and these then drop very low at night time. Water is also a problem for the !Kung, they travel miles for water or else have to rely upon water derived from specific plants. Marjorie Shostak’s book accounts for the life of a !Kung women named Nisa. Through Nisa’s story the difficulties of the hunter-gatherer way of life are laid bare. The book details the losses that Nisa experiences: her Mother, Father, children, husband and brother all die. The losss of so many individuals is incomprehensible. Challenges of disease were the main casualty for Nisa's families passing.


Amongst the Pygmy, life expectance was just seventeen years, the life expectancy of the USA is over 4 times that of the Pygmy, equalling 76 for females. These people by Western standards can be defined as poor as they have very little. However, this can be countered as all they need is around them, these items can be obtained fairly easily too. Sahlins argues that those whom are poor only have limited access to what they require. This is not the case for hunter-gatherers and if if using Marshall Sahlins well researched definition, hunter-gatherers cannot by poor. Sahlins believes hunter-gatherers to be affluent, this idea disproves the whole concept and construct that to have little means that you are poor.


Hunter-gatherers posess little, but are not poor, the way of life they have apdopted has supported people for many thousands of years. There are factors present in their life style which at a base level can be considered to be very poor indeed. These include illness, low life expectancys and high infant morality rates. Hunter-gatherers manage to exploit the environment to the best of their abilities in order to extract the items central to their life. They survive and this survival is their aim, infact this is the fundamental aim of the whole of humanity.

Sources/Further Reading

Shostak, M (1981) Nisa The Life and Words of a !Kung Women, Great Britain: Earthscan


Sahlins, M (1972) Stone Age Economics, Illinois: Aldine Atherton INC


Nurit-Bird, D (1992) ‘Beyond ‘The Hunting and Gathering Mode of Subsistence’: Culture Sensitive Observations on the Nayaka and Other Modern Hnter-Gatherers’, Man, New Series.


Soloway, J and Lee, B.R (1990) ‘Foragers, Genuine or Spurious?: Situating the Kalahari San in History, Current Anthropology


Rowley-Conwy, P (2001) Time, Change and the Archaeology of Hunter-Gatherers: How Original is the Original Affluent Society? IN Panter-Brick, C, Layton, R and Rowley-Conwy, P (2001) Hunter-Gatherers an Interdisciplinary Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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